Toxic Zombies

United States. 80 minutes. Directed by Charles McCrann, 1980. Starring Charles McCrann, Beverly Shapiro, Dennis Helfend, John Amplas.

When a pair of federal agents disappear while investigating a massive marijuana plantation in a remote, forested area, an ambitious colleague named in Washington suspects foul play and retaliates by illegally ordering the region dusted down with an experimental and highly unapproved herbicide. One of the pesticide’s unexpected side effects is that it turns those it comes into contact with–specifically, the members of the hippie commune growing the pot–into violent, bloodthirsty ghouls. Maverick Forestry Service Tom Cole stumbles upon the whole mess, and it’s hard to say what threat poses greater danger: the cannibalistic hippies, or the FBI agents willing to take any ruthless measure to cover up their mistake…

There’s a long-standing connection between zombie movies and socio-political commentary, and Toxic Zombies–which kicks off with a young unarmed woman shot dead by two FBI agents–fits squarely into that tradition.

Unfortunately for the overall viewing experience, the film’s commentary isn’t along the comparatively subtle lines of earlier zombie films such as Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead. (And I found it very hard to keep my mind from wandering over to the Romero films, partially because Toxic’s gore is highly reminiscent of Dawn’s, if nowhere near as good, and partially because one of Toxic’s second-string villains is played by Romero fixture John Amplas.) The tone favored by writer/director/producer/editor Charles McCrann isn’t quite as heavy-handed and shrill as that favored by, say, Tom McLaughlin in the later, less watchable Billy Jack movies, but it’s still pretty blunt and sermon-y.

Fine, whatever. I can handle stuff like that, and enjoy it if some interesting ideas are being worked out. (I, once again, remind the audience that I found some genuinely positive things to say about Romero’s intensely flawed Survival of the Dead.) But the theme of the American government actively murdering its own citizens seems a bit out of time for the era that produced the film, as does the presence of hippies (they are identified as such in the cast list). A self-reliant commune in the middle of nowhere was less likely to conjure up images of idealistic libertarian idealists on an Emersonian head-trip than it was to recall memories of the Manson Family, Jim Jones, or the fictional psycho clans of Texas Chain Saw and The Hills Have Eyes.

But, what the hell. Even if the ideas are a bit flawed I can at least hope for an engaging story, right? And that’s another level on which Toxic fails. It’s structured very poorly, with important characters disappearing from the plot for too-long stretches. The characterization is extremely thin, with very few roles even approaching the status of two-dimensional effigies. McCrann finds his story’s hero, Tom Cole, a lot more interesting than he actually is, but he doesn’t bother developing the hippie characters to the point where they have actual names, missing a prime opportunity for pathos. Subplots involving a family of four on a camping trip and a reclusive ally of the hippies are milked for the very smallest amount of drama they can produce.

And the character of Jimmy–the mentally challenged son of the campers–is, between the writing and the acting (one Kevin Hanlon to blame in the latter case), so horrific and insensitive that, coming as it does in a film that seems to be presenting a social conscience, it actually offended me. Hanlon’s performance reminded me of the kids who mock Walt Jr. in the clothing store in the Breaking Bad pilot–and that’s just one of any number of bizarre casting choices or performances in the film. Check out 36-year-old Judy Brown as Jimmy’s sister Amy–a character who is supposed to be, at most, fifteen or sixteen. Dennis Helfend takes old-coot-overacting to new heights as the hermit. Finally, McCrann casts as Cole the absolute last actor who ever should have been allowed to play the role: himself, under the pseudonym “Tom Austin.”

These are balanced out by a fair amount of decent performances, particularly Paul Haskin as Briggs and Amplas as Briggs’s flunky, but the damage is already done. It probably worked okay as a drive-in filler-feature in the early ’80s, but these days there’s barely any reason to go near it, unless you’re a completist aficionado of Amplas’s work or the Video Nasties list. Or if you just want a bad movie to spend an evening making fun of.

TOXIC ZOMBIES poster.

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